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An escape from paradise

SCV resident recounts life in Cuba in 1959

Posted: October 12, 2008 6:42 p.m.
Updated: December 14, 2008 5:00 a.m.

As a college student visiting her home in Cuba, Susie Jones witnessed the Cuban revolutionaries overthrowing the government in the late 1950's.

 

Susie Jones moved to Santa Clarita in July 1969. There were no apartments here at the time, and the only hotel was the Ranch House.

"I was here when tumbleweeds used to cross the streets." Jones said, "when hills existed that are no longer here."

But before Jones decided to settle in Santa Clarita, she traveled the world and lived in the Florida Keys, Cuba, Colorado and Lebanon.

Before moving away to attend college at Colorado University, Boulder, Jones lived with her parents on their elite fishing resort on what used to be called the Isle of Pines (now called Isla de la Juventud). The Isle of Pines, although belonging to Cuba, was a separate island not attached to the mainland. Her father, she said, was a "natural born fisherman" while her mother was a business woman, earning a degree from Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Melon).

Her parents owned and ran an elite sports fishing lodge. They used to run the business in the Florida Keys, but decided to move to Cuba since the fishing there was better. "They moved because my father felt like he outfished the Keys," Jones said.

He needed a new scene.

In addition to housing guests in cabins on land, Jones and her family owned six houseboats available for their clients. Each houseboat had its own captain and crew to maneuver the boat and serve those on board.

The business was highly successful with an "excellent clientele base which included Ted Williams and Curt Gowdy," Jones said.

Jones and her sister, like most college students, returned home for winter break. They both were excited to spend some time home with one another and with their parents.

It was New Year's Eve, and Jones had planned to visit her high school, Ruston Academy located on the mainland of Cuba within the next couple of days. She expected to see friends she hasn't seen since she left for college. She expected a warm homecoming, filled with laughter and relaxation.

What she didn't expect was to find herself on a flight back to the states three hours into the new year to escape the Cuban revolutionary victory.

That faithful night
Jones' mother woke her in the middle of the night. "Dear, I need you to translate," her mother said. As an American living in Cuba, Jones' mother didn't speak Spanish fluently enough to understand the men who were pointing their rifles at her.

"I can't imagine the terror she felt when being awakened by these three strange men, rifles pointing at her head," Susie Jones said. "She was a small lady, kind and gentle, of English/Irish decent."

Jones remembers the three men dressed in all khaki. She remembers the two holding the rifles as being rather meek, almost embarrassed to be doing something like this to an innocent woman and children. She remembers the man in the middle, who she intuitively knew was "el jefe," or "the boss." She remembers how he stood tall, and how articulate he was.

Based on their attire, it was obvious they were escaped prisoners.

"New Year's Eve, after many years of revolution, Fidel Castro had deposed Fulgencio Batista. The political wind had shifted, and many political prisoners had been released," Jones said. "In the chaos, it seems a few other prisoners of questionable backgrounds had also managed to get out."

The Jefe spoke, and Susie Jones became a translator for the evening.

"He wanted one of our 40-foot houseboats, food, a captain and a full tank of gas," Jones said. "He wanted to escape."

But hijacking one of their houseboat as a means for escape was nearly impossible. Without a captain, it was doubtful whether the convicts would have even left the dock. The houseboats were not made for long trips, either. They were designed for fishing purposes around the mangroves. They didn't even hold enough gas to travel long distances. Jones told them they would never make it.

"They didn't like that answer," she said.

The men, determined to succeed, forced the ladies to the dock where the boats floated. Unfortunately, one of the captains drove past the estate and, interested in why people stood on the dock so late at night, parked his vehicle and joined the hostage situation.

Immediately, the Jefe confronted him and forced him on the houseboat as their getaway captain.

"My mother was pleading for him, saying that it took more than one person to man the boat," Jones said. "She felt helpless and feared for this poor, good man's life."

Jones and her mother desperately watched as one of their houseboats, along with one of their captains, chugged its way down the Jucaro River, out to the open sea.

"It was surreal," she said.

Riled up in anger, Jones' mother bolted through the yard and across the road to where the business vehicles were parked - an English Ford and a VW flatbed truck, used to haul 200-pound blocks of ice from town. As she approached them, she looked down and found two slashed tires on each vehicle. She had lost all means of efficient, on-land transportation.

The convicts knew what they were doing. "They had planned well," Jones said.

Jones' mom remembered that the captain arrived in a car, so she quickly ran toward it. She was in luck. The captain left his keys.

She immediately told her daughters to pack all of their belongings as fast as they could and to meet in the car.

The sun rose over the horizon when Susie Jones, her sister, and her mom took off for the Nueva Gerona airport, a 60-mile journey.

About 15 miles into their ride, they reached the first town, the city of Santa Fe.

"We held our breath when we pulled into town," Jones said. "We could hear the celebration, the shouting, the great jubilation. Crowds of people were waving, dancing and singing."

Cars decked out in Castro colors (black and red) circled the town square. Cuban flags waved about the city. Celebratory gunshots exploded randomly, piercing the noisy air in short bursts.

The girls managed to get through the bursting town of Santa Fe without anyone questioning them.

But they encountered another problem as soon as they arrived at the airport: armed guards.

"Would we be stopped and condemned as ‘American capitalist pigs?'" Jones remembered thinking.

Luckily for the group, the guard on duty that night happened to be a man they've known for a few years. He got them onto a small plane, and soon, they were off the ground, escaping the chaos below them.

Jones' mother didn't get on the plane. Her heart belonged in Cuba. This was her home. With her children safely on route back to the States, she returned to the captain's car, and headed back toward her estate.
Jones' remembered watching the little green island disappear as they took off, but she felt nervous the majority of the plan ride.

"We knew we would not be safe until we had cleared the main island of Cuba," Jones said. "It wasn't until we saw Louisiana below that we let out a sign of relief."

"I went to sleep on New Year's Eve 1958, and woke up to a whole new world on Jan. 1, 1959," she said. "I would never see these beautiful islands again."

The Revolution
On the first of January, revolutionary forces led by Fidel Castro took control of Havana.

At about 2 a.m., a little bit before Jones' mother first woke her up to translate, Fulgencio Batista, his family and closest associates, boarded a plane at Camp Columbia and left the island.

Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos lead the rebels into Havana.

The United States proxy Batista regime had been officially overthrown.

Later that day, in Santiago de Cuba, Oriente Province, Castro made a victorious speech: "This time the revolution will not be frustrated! This time, fortunately for Cuba, the revolution will achieve its true objective. It will not be like 1898, when the Americans came and made themselves masters of the country."

The hijacked houseboat didn't make it too far, as was expected. They were spotted by an Italian freighter a few days into the new year.

Jones' parents stayed on the island and continued business until the summer of 1961, when Castro personally took over their lodge. He claimed that it now "belonged to the Cuban people," Jones said.

Her parents lost everything, but at least they weren't harmed.

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